Are Video Game Characters Real?

As Kyle once said in South Park’s Imaginationland Episode III:

Because I– Because I think they are real. It’s all real. Think about it. Haven’t Luke Skywalker and Santa Claus affected your lives more than most real people in this room? I mean, whether Jesus is real or not, he’s had a bigger impact on the world than any of us have. And the same can be said for Bugs Bunny and Superman and Harry Potter. They’ve changed my life, changed the way I act on the earth. Doesn’t that make them kind of real? They might be imaginary, but they’re more important than most of us here. And they’re all gonna be around till long after we’re dead. So in a way, those things are more realer than any of us.

I responded to a posting on a message board with this quote and someone replied that I was sheltered for believing such things. However, I do believe that video game characters are real in some way. Let me rationalize this.

Think about your favorite video game character. Go ahead, pick your favorite character in your head. I’ll wait.

Got it? OK. Now answer these for me:

  1. How does this character move?
  2. How does this character speak?
  3. How does this character look?
  4. How does this character interact with other characters?
  5. Does this character have any special powers/unique abilities?
  6. Why is this character your favorite character?

I am no writer, but I can guarantee that a person somewhere came up with that character that you love so much. The person may have worked with a writer to script dialogue. They also sculpted the things the character would say or do, and the artists and voice actors brought the character to life. In essence, the character created more work for people to do, affected their lives and workflows, and then eventually affected your life as well. If the character didn’t, why would it be your favorite character?

Once a character is made, they’ll most likely need to interact with other characters onscreen. Some characters may have friendships, other may have none. I’m reminded of this article on Joystiq, Mario, meet Sonic (at the Winter Olympics):

Now he’s talking about the new “Adventure Tours” mode, a story-style mode where Mario, Sonic, and friends all team up to save the “snow spirits” by expertly completing in Olympic events. He tells you, in Japanese and then through the translator, that Sega had to handle this carefully, because this is the first time in their history that Mario and Sonic, Nintendo and Sega characters, have interacted with each other and participated in completing the same goal.

Your mind wanders. What an interesting idea! You wonder what kinds of hoops Sega must have had to jump through, whether Nintendo laid down rules or restrictions on how their characters could interact. Did Nintendo specify that Mario had to stand closer to Luigi than Sonic, as if they could be friends, but not truly brothers? Did they ask that Princess Peach and Amy Rose treat each other coldly at first, just so no one thought that the characters were too close?


That question about how the characters were used, about if Nintendo or Sega placed limits on how their characters interacted, or if there was anything Ohashi and his team wanted to do that Nintendo or Sega put the kibosh on. […] Is there anything they wanted to put in that just didn’t make it?

The article itself is a very odd one, but it brings up an interesting topic. Every character that is added to a game must act within the social boundaries that are set for each character. For example we know the disposition of Mario and Sonic, thus they get along. However, we also know the disposition of, say Shadow and Wario. They would act against our heroes unless there was some other force at work stopping everyone from continuing “the norm” in their little game universe.

Each interaction, each word must be handled with care so as not to break “the norm” for each character. Doing so would be “out of character” for a specific character, meaning that it’s normally not something they would do. Depending on the delivery of the action in question, this could be good or bad, but believe me, there’s someone, somewhere pondering all of these character interactions, making the characters more real for us to enjoy or admire.

Who is really in control?